Exploring the Value of Participatory System Dynamics in Two Paired Field Studies of Stakeholder Engagement in Sustainability Discussions

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Systems Research and Behavioral Science





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This paper presents empirical evidence from two field studies about the effect of participatory system dynamics processes in stakeholder discussions about sustainability issues. Both studies examined paired real‐world group processes in which stakeholders were asked to provide policy recommendations to municipal decision makers. One group in each study used a general meeting facilitation approach, and the other used participatory system dynamics. One pair of groups discussed urban growth issues and met monthly for over a year. The other pair of groups discussed a proposed Zero Waste management initiative and met for one workshop session during a single‐day conference. The urban growth study was an opportunistic, post hoc comparison of two groups with similar stakeholders independently convened at the same time. The participatory system dynamics group followed a full‐group model‐building process. The Zero Waste study was a field experiment in which participants in the same 1‐day conference were divided into two groups for facilitated discussion, and the participatory system dynamics group used an existing system dynamics simulation model for analysis. Content analysis of meeting material as well as participant surveys and interviews in the longer term engagement showed the system dynamics group followed key steps of an “ideal” problem‐solving process more closely, scored higher on most group process and outcome variables, and had higher participant satisfaction than the traditionally facilitated group. In the short‐term processes, prediscussion and postdiscussion surveys showed the participatory system dynamics group produced better policy recommendations, but the traditionally facilitated group reported higher procedural satisfaction. Although the difficulty of strictly controlling for all variation in context limits our conclusions, these field comparisons support the value of participatory system dynamics for improving stakeholder engagement processes. The differences in participant satisfaction outcomes imply that special attention must be paid to satisfaction in shorter term participatory system dynamics activities.


General meeting facilitation; Group processes; Stakeholder engagement; Urban growth; Zero waste


Business Administration, Management, and Operations



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